All We Need To Fix The Planet Is More Cash

The one way to slow devastating storms and reverse climate change is clean energy, and the only way to do that is to pay more for R&D.

We’re losing the war on climate change. And our best weapon is one we’re badly under-utilizing.

The world is in the midst of the greatest surge in carbon emissions it has ever seen. In 2013, the residents of planet Earth will likely emit around a billion tons more CO2 than they did in 2012, where in turn they emitted almost a billion tons more CO2 than they did in 2011.

The drivers of this surge of carbon pollution are simple. Around the world, 6 billion people are climbing out of what most Americans would consider poverty. Those men, women, and children—in Asia, in Sub-Saharan Africa, in Latin America—crave cars, larger homes, central heat, air conditioning, televisions, and mass-produced goods of all sorts. All of that takes energy. And what sort of energy do people choose? The cheapest kind available.

There are a host of proposals for how to address climate change around the world: a global cap-and-trade system, pervasive carbon taxes, renewable energy mandates, even geo-engineering schemes. All of those are worth pursuing. Many of them are yielding fruit today. But so far, they’ve proven very far from sufficient in tackling the problem.

There is one over-arching, unilateral strategy that would address climate change, without the need for global treaties or bruising fights with industry. It’s this: Make renewable energy so cheap that it hardly makes sense to use anything else. Make it cheaper to use solar and wind than coal or natural gas, and utilities and industry will switch. The larger the price difference is, the faster that switch will happen.

The potential is there. The Sun strikes Earth with thousands of times more energy than humanity uses from fossil fuels. The energy in just a few weeks of sunlight is greater than our known or projected reserves of fossil fuels, combined. Solar panels on less than 1% of Earth’s land area could meet all of our energy needs for the century to come. And the prices of solar panels are already plunging, dropping by more than half in the last two years, and by a factor of four since 2000.

Yet, as the continued exponential growth in carbon emissions shows, that price drop isn’t happening fast enough. At the current pace of price reduction, we’re on track for burning fossil fuels as our primary source of energy well past 2040, a path that would blow us well beyond the consensus 2 degrees Celsius threshold for preventing the most dangerous warming.

Our most important lever, our most important weapon, is directed innovation, R&D directly into techniques that would further drop the costs of green energy and energy storage technologies.

Yet the U.S. government spends only $2 billion each year on green energy R&D. Those $2 billion have produced great returns, to be sure. For instance, research at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory has led to new solar cells with a record breaking 45% efficiency. Another research project from NREL led to the creation of an "optical furnace" that could further cut the cost of manufacturing solar panels in half.

Yet that $2 billion we spend is a pittance compared to the $65 billion in damage that hurricane Sandy wrought last year, or the $35 billion in damage that 2012’s epic drought inflicted.

Ramez Naam is the author of the forthcoming book The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet.

Even within the realm of green energy spending, our priorities are inverted. The economic stimulus resulted in spending of somewhere between $34 and $50 billion on renewable energy and efficiency projects, yet the vast majority of that went to deployment rather than R&D. This is exactly backwards. Spending billions of dollars a year on clean energy deployment won’t make an appreciable dent in global carbon emissions. But additional billions of dollars per year could drive innovation that accelerates the price decline of green energy. Once clean energy is cheaper than fossil fuels, then the market—with access to trillions of dollars in capital—will take care of deployment. Our top priority must be accelerating the pace of innovation to drive down the underlying cost of solar, wind, and storage.

Climate change is here, now. And even worse may be in store. In addition to Sandy’s crippling of the East Coast and the drought that knocked out a third of the U.S. corn crop, 2012 brought a new record low in the size of the Arctic ice cap, bringing the ice coverage down to a level not seen in thousands of years. Satellite measures tell us that, by volume, four fifths of the ice that covered the Arctic in 1979 is now gone. As the rest of that ice melts, darker waters below will absorb more heat, speeding the warming of the planet. And the nearby Arctic tundra—with nearly a trillion tons of frozen carbon—will be at risk of thawing and releasing that carbon into the atmosphere, setting off a new tipping point in climate change.

We can’t afford to risk such tipping points. R&D spending to drive innovation that lowers the price of green energy is the most powerful tool we have. It’s a unilateral weapon with which we can change the behavior of the entire world. Make green energy cheap, and the world will come. To succeed in that goal, we need to up our investment to a level commensurate with the threat.

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  • awesomedreams

    Oh come on. Really? This is your solution? How about thinking LARGER. You know, holistically. Getting to the root of the pollution problem is also getting to the root of the problems of starvation, inequality, injustice, and just general human well-being. That root is the monetary system itself. The only way to truly pull out of the mess we're in is to reverse the capitalist paradigm of "profit before people." The institutions that vehemently protect this line of thought have to be destroyed and replaced with ones that put resource distribution efficiency above profiteering. And the only way to do THAT is to first remove the power of money. So unfortunately this means, societal collapse and/or revolution must first occur. A movement is coming. People are going to come together and they'll stop paying their loans and credit cards and they'll start using timebanking to get things done and the banks will fall. Until then, the climate will not get fixed. Read up on the zeitgeist movement and the venus project to learn more.

  • Reva Madison

    Yep, humans are often dumb about the future.  They want it cheap today, and damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead with increasing the problems that we already have.  We had a vice president that told us all this, and the American people and the other party poo-pooed his every statement on global warming, and the use of renewable power generation.  The nay-Sayers are still out there, much like the old fogies around here to vote against spending money on the county or city school systems. They got theirs, and their children are through school, so lets cut back on education for the oncoming generations.  They easily ignore the fact that others paid for theirs, and they need to pay it forward.    It is stupid to burn our natural resources for power today, only to look at a future without those same fuels for production of other items such as plastics, medicines, etc. where we are really going to need them. 

  • Juan Diosdado

    I agree that advancing solar energy is one of the most important current issues. But claiming that you can solve a problem simply by throwing money at it is the antithesis of innovation. It's truly disappointing to see Co.Exist publish something so stupid. The real problem we have now is a lack of good leaders capable of understanding and taking on these kind of issues with true resolve.

  • Frenchfarmer

    The last thing the commercial powers, that have bought or coerced the majority of governments worldwide, want is for energy to be free.
    That's the problem and it is your personal private investment fund that is backing them.
    Young fund managers with a bonus in sight and a pretty girl to show it to don't really care about third world countries and it is probable that they believe that the third world means outer space.
    Until we get past the concept of other people looking after our money, and using it as they wish in the name of profit, allegedly for our benefit, then we are screwed

  • frenchfarmer

    Far too simplistic but if you are going to take the cash from the 10% of the people who stole ours then fine, go for it.
    Why don't all these companies that claim to be ecological put solar panels on their roof?
    How much do those companies have invested in wind?
    Solar is going to make wind power on a large scale obsolete.
    When coupled with reverse hydro systems it wins every time.